An acquaintance of mine, a German native who now lives outside Hamburg, warned me about that city’s ballet audience. They’re reserved and quite cool, and don’t make a lot of noise. Usually they won’t applaud when a scene is over or even after an especially dramatic pas de deux. You can’t tell what they’re thinking, he said; you have to wait until the end. Boy, was he right.
Houston Ballet appeared as guest artist July 7 and 8 at the Hamburgische Staatsoper during Hamburg Ballet’s “41st Ballet Days” festival. On opening night, the audience was polite but glacial through Stanton Welch’s triptych, which showed off the company to greatest effect: Tapestry (2012), Maninyas (1996) and Velocity (2003). But when the final curtain came down, pandemonium erupted. What until then had been warm acknowledgment from the Hamburgers turned into hoots and whistles, clamorous stamping, rhythmic clapping and curtain calls too numerous to keep track of. Hamburg’s daily, Die Welt Kompakt, called Houston Ballet “a triumph” and “a phenomenon.” Correct on both counts.
Led by expansive, explosive Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as our bare-chested guide, Tapestry weaves an exuberant, youthful spell. Using Mozart’s lively Violin Concerto No. 5 as inspiration, Welch creates a spring-like aura, though Lisa Pinkham’s dappled, murky lighting verged on the funereal. But the dancers didn’t care; they burst through the gloom and lit up the Staatsoper. While Yoshiyama shimmered with sensuality, mimicking the violin part, the trio of Karina González, Ian Casady and Connor Walsh, like fine, sleek horses, pranced through the 1st movement’s flowing, warm choreography. They were soon joined by other couples, interspersed like a loom’s weft, and the ballet seethed with communal spirit. Linnar Looris and Yuriko Kajiya had a buttery turn as she slid under his leg, catching his thigh, then they both disappeared upstage amid the slender ropes that hung through the background space. There were one-arm catches from Melody Mennite and Jared Matthews, and generous partnering with Madeline Skelly and Brian Waldrep. All ate up space, none more so than Oliver Halkowich in the famous “Turkish March” third movement, as he flew around the stage in “menage,” dared by Aaron Robison with his own series of whiplash turns and devilish changes of direction. Throughout Welch’s fluid yet fiendishly difficult choreography, the dancers looked in charge and charged; sparks flew. Youth, physicality and sweet sexiness melded, like warp and weft.
If clothing is character, the colorful dresses of the women in Maninyas are roles by themselves. They are swirled in anger, gathered and thrashed on the ground between the women’s legs, wrapped swiftly around their arms in courtly gesture or kicked aside with petulance. The five women (Jessica Collado, Karina González, Elise Elliott, Katelyn May and Allison Miller) treat their dresses much like they treat their men (Christopher Coomer, Oliver Halkowich, Ian Casady, Rhodes Elliott and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama). These are females who will not be tamed. In violet, red, blue, green and brown skirts with laced tops, which give them a pseudo-Renaissance look, these gals know what they want and how to get it. Set to Ross Edwards’s moody and evocative Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Welch’s physical battle of the sexes has the men at one point pushing the women down to the stage, but the plucky femmes don’t even seem to reach the floor before rebounding and wrapping themselves around the shirtless guys. In an angst-filled pas de deux, Ian Casady, exuding power with effortless ease, embraces Elise Elliott, but she fights back, leaning far out of his clutches. As the other women cross the stage in a mysteriously creepy crab-like walk, Casady finds himself face to face with Jessica Collado. Her innate softness is something new, and we immediately realize she is meant for him. Edwards’s music softens, too. Her legs run while she’s held in his arms; suddenly she’s on his shoulder, but slides down, then she’s in his arms again, face in hands, as she’s carried into the background, through the soft, billowy panels that are this ballet’s signature look – wafting, drifting, changing. The third movement has the dancers spent and exhausted, as if partnerships have drained the life out of them, but one by one they get their groove back, literally sliding Miller through those background panels. It’s a startling move, and even the somewhat dour Hamburgers — at that point of the evening — could be heard suddenly inhaling as if with one shocked breath. Everyone pairs off at the conclusion, and Collado is willed back into Casady’s arms, stopping mid-movement and backing up toward him.
Set in front of Kandis Cook’s Mondrian-inspired, geometric gray-blocked background, Velocity is all that title implies — fast, faster, fastest. This is classical ballet with a vengeance and an all-American can-do attitude. Sixteen men in dark gray unitards with a gauzy midsection play with with 16 women in pristine white unitards with gauzy midsection. The women wear crisp, thin classical tutus, sharply pleated as if they could cut glass. This is Swan Lake meets Cubism. With Michael Torke’s propulsive and equally angular original score, this ballet is a free, fresh and tongue-in-cheek take on classical ballet. The macho guys pose and preen, perhaps running full out then sliding to a stop — here, in profile, a glimpse of Nijinsky’s Faun; there, in hauteur, a strutting Don Q bullfighter; while the women remind us of Tchaikovsky’s lakeside maidens, only with lightning footwork and superhuman agility. This is perpetuum mobile dancing that catches us by the throat and leaves us breathless. Aaron Robison wowed with his series of perfectly placed double tours and flawless technical bravado. Welch’s piece is all bravado, a brilliant close to an evening that left the Hamburgers in noisy awe.
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John Neumeier, artistic director of Hamburg Ballet and a choreographer revered throughout Europe, so admired Houston Ballet’s fall production of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he requested the company’s presence at his Ballet Days festival. To my knowledge, San Francisco Ballet is the only other American ballet company to be so invited. After this most impressive Hamburg debut, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt about speaking of Houston Ballet as an international dance company. In its repertoire, backstage wizards and dazzling array of dancers, who make everything they dance seem spontaneous and enchanted, Houston Ballet rules. And rocks. Just ask any Hamburger.